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Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Juiced Hall Era

I was certainly thrilled that Andre Dawson was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame earlier this week, but I was also disappointed to learn that he will be the only member of the 2010 class. Obviously, there are a wide range of opinions among the membership of the BBWAA on what exactly it means to be a Hall of Famer and what exactly the role of the Hall of Fame is, and they are certainly entitled to that debate, since effective ground rules have never been laid out.

Bill James' The Politics of Glory outlines the Hall's humble origins, it's numerous oddities, and its torturous electoral process.  It is a must-read, even for people who aren't generally of the sabermetric persuasion.  Even though I don't fully agree with all of James' arguments, I appreciate that men like himself and Rob Neyer have thoughtful, well-reasoned explanations of what they expect the Hall to represent. Many other pundits (many of them BBWAA voters) are irrational and schizophrenic on the subject.  Sportswriters are prone to prejudice, ignorance, and hubris on many topics, but perhaps none more blatantly provokes these qualities than questions about the Hall of Fame ballot.

Personally, I just can't understand Cooperstown as anything except an archive and a museum.  I honestly don't imagine what other role it is supposed to play.  As such, I don't see the problem with inclusivity.  I have extraordinary liberal standards.  On this particular ballot, I would've supported the candidacies of fourteen players: Dawson, Roberto Alomar, Tim Raines, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Edgar Martinez, Burt Blyleven, Lee Smith, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, and Fred McGriff.  And there are many other players who I believe are too important to a rich baseball education to be excluded from an institution whose primary purpose would appear to be assisting such an education: Dick Allen and Curt Flood, for starters.  What I'm looking for from the Hall of Fame is a relatively complete picture of the various eras of baseball history and I think each of these men are appropriate to a portrait which is vivid and engaging.

I don't think baseball fans are as ignorant at the writers think we are. Just because Jack Morris is in the Hall of Fame, that doesn't mean he will be forever remembered as equal to Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax.  When writers argue that enshrining a player like Dawson or Blyleven or McGriff might somehow "dilute" the Hall of Fame and diminish the accomplishments of its other members I am appalled.  It portrays egotism and misanthropy, suggesting such writers think everybody else too stupid to make subtle qualitative distinctions.

On the contrary, I believe the Hall of Fame's institutional role should go well beyond increasing the appreciation of "first-ballot" players like Gibson, Koufax, Ruth, and Mays, men whose legends and contributions need very little help remaining in the public eye.  I think it would be wonderful to have a place where people can also learn about players (and other baseball personnel) who haven't been as broadly canonized, but are nonetheless fascinating and inspirational figures. I can't help but ask, "Why not?"  What possible disservice would be done by having a Dave Parker plaque in Cooperstown?  Parker's career was fully of incredible accomplishments and is also defined by a number of curious, humorous, and instructive anecdotes.

A Hall of Fame which successfully rendered an objective and productive history of America's pastime would have to be an independent institution. Bud Selig (and subsequent commissioners) should not have the power to govern the Hall, nor should there be any criteria which makes a player ineligible for entry.   The more the Hall relies upon MLB or the BBWAA, the more it loses credibility and becomes a largely inconsequential syphon for advertising and propaganda.  A truly comprehensive baseball history naturally includes the careers of Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, and Mark McGwire. To argue otherwise is grossly incompetent.  The Hall of Fame won't be a truly legitimate institution until such players are included.

However, I also believe the players should have no say in how they are represented in Cooperstown. Those actions which sullied the reputations of the men listed above are as much a part of baseball history as their achievements on the field. So, yes, Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame...but his plaque will "talk about the past."

Frankly, McGwire's treatment by voters thusfar suggests we are headed down a slippery slope. How do they propose to distinguish which "juiced" players get in and which ones don't.  McGwire's example is a dangerous one especially because he was never suspended for drug abuse or convicted of anything.  Everything we know about his pharmaceutical exploits is circumstantial.  Much the same can be said of Clemens, Bonds, A-Rod, and many of the other so-called "juicers."  The subjectivity of this process endangers the credibility of the institution.  What happens if Clemens is elected, but Bonds is not, or vice versa.

It is possible that ten years from now we will have a Hall of Fame that more or less omits two decades of baseball history and does not include baseball's all-time hits leader (Rose) or baseball's all-time home-run leaders (Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez), not to mention other players of extraordinary accomplishment like McGwire, Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, etc.

People go to the Hall of Fame largely to embrace their own nostalgia and share a part of those memories with their children. Many men and women who grew up during the "Juiced Ball" era would have very little use for a museum which ignores the existence of those players who most defined their youth. Keeping them out of the Hall of Fame is a fascistic re-writing of history. What must happen, eventually, is that baseball must enshrine the best players of that era, but they must do so without ignoring the ethical questions which also dominated the decade.

What makes a museum different from an amusement park is that it is expected to elicit not only joy, but also curiosity.  When a parent takes a child, they expect not only to entertain them, but also to educate and intrigue.  In such situations, it is imperative that the child see beyond the heroizing phenomenon of athletic celebrity.  Baseball is a wonderful way of exploring American cultural history, and that history much include discussions of addiction, exploitation, prejudice, and even defeat.  Manny's suspension is a part baseball's historical record, as is the Mitchell Report, the Bonds indictment, the Congressional hearings, the BALCO investigation, etc. To pretend otherwise merely compromises your credibility.


Michael Holloway said...

Great post, nice writing! It's my first time here, really glad I came.

While I agree that the looming McGwire case portents a slippery slope - a very bad precedent - and one that seems to be spreading, not just in baseball; I think I remember him testifying in front of Congress. While not admitting anything, I remember him tearfully saying he would repay the game, especially the kids, anyway he could - a stand up guy.

But that doesn't count in the zero tolerance era, does it?

Michael Holloway

Hippeaux said...

Thanks for visiting, Michael, and welcome to the BBA. I was in St. Louis for McGwire's historic '98 season, when the city named a street after him, and it is truly amazing to see how far his star has fallen.

Although I certainly have seen evidence of egomania and arrogance in McGwire's behavior over the years, I agree that he has also demonstrated a desire to represent the game proudly and learn from his experiences. I hope that in his new role as St. Louis's hitting coach he will make strides toward renovating his tarnished reputation. If he can do so, it will not only do him good, but probably help many of his colleagues who are also looking to put the "Juiced Ball" era behind them.

michael holloway said...

Hey! I like that bottom at the bottom of the email that takes me back here.

So today Mr. McGeire admitted he used steroids. Good for him.

I posted in Twitter earlier today that MLBs' complicity in this scandal will come out as coaches and managers begin to retire.

So you points about including these great players, (who were all the greater on steroids), is the only way out for the 'Lords of the Realm'. Your post has legs.


michael holloway said...

sorry about that comment, I'll edit next time.